More a visceral excercise in disorientation than a plot-driven action thriller, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy combines the psychology of color with the subtlties of revenge tragedy to achieve a remarkably dense filmic experience. Jagged, expressionistic set designs and frenetic cinematography evoke the paranoia of Park’s psychically tortured protagonist Oh Dae-su, channeling the spirits of Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg. Suffering in the film’s opening sequences a meaningless incarceration of fiteen years, Oh is released into an unstable freedom in which he seems to be aided by strangers in his quest for revenge against his nameless captors.
As Oh, Choi Min-Sik carries this character study with all the requisite depth; the audience’s interest is fixed on this aged yet youthful face as the former family-man encounters bewilderment, rage, shame, and redemption. Oh’s complexity emanates from the ironic contrast between lust and familial piety, a tension which sustains his will for vengeance. The film suggests the moral vacuity of film noir until its final act, when, cleverly, its true nature as an archetypal morality tale is revealed as Oh’s fragilely pieced-together reality disintegrates.
More off-putting than off-beat, certain sequences involving the carpenter’s approach to dentistry or seafood are only the starkest moments in a film which challenges its audience’s ability to comprehend what it is seeing (and stomach it, too). Even though the convoluted structure and shot compositions are appropriate to Park’s artistic aims, the film is frequently perplexing and at times purely abstruse. If, however, the viewer invests enough into Oldboy, the elemental impact of the climax and epilogue is more than rewarding.